Lectionary Commentaries for September 27, 2009
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 9:38-50

Paul S. Berge

Coming from the villages of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus first announced his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection (8:31),

Jesus is now moving south toward Jerusalem and is passing through Galilee where he announces his passion and resurrection for the second time (9:30-31). Once again the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ messiahship (9:32-34) and again Jesus teaches them concerning discipleship (9:35-37).

The text for our consideration continues the theme of the disciples’ misunderstanding. They question Jesus concerning an exorcist who is not one of them and is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but “was not following us” (9:38b).

Perhaps the disciples are anticipating that Jesus would rebuke such a person, but Jesus uses the occasion to teach the disciples. Waging the battle against Satan, demons or unclean spirits is a central theme in Mark. The first public act of Jesus’ ministry is casting out the unclean spirit of the man in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21-28). Demonic possession is overcome in the name of Jesus, which is what this unknown exorcist was doing: ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name” (9:38a).

Jesus’ teaching moment comes in his words to the disciples: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (9:39). Jesus’ battle against Satan (1:12-13) and ongoing presence of evil takes all the resources possible: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (9:40).

Not only is Jesus’ ministry against the powers of evil, but his ministry is a pattern for all who reach out in love to the neighbor: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (9:41). Serving the neighbor is not to gain reward but to live in response to the neighbor and serving out of love and in the name of Christ.

This text draws several teachings of Jesus into a teaching block to focus on the radical call of following Jesus. Jesus has a special place for children and the powerless in his teaching. The most remembered teaching of Jesus is still ahead in chapter ten: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (10:14). Our text anticipates this teaching as Jesus warns against putting “a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me” (9:42a).

To cause a little one to fall away, to turn from Jesus, brings forth one of the harshest sayings of Jesus in the gospels. If there is anything that brings about the fall of little ones, “it would be better for you if a great millstone was hung about your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (9:42b).

This harsh saying is followed by sayings on maiming. Three of the most precious members of the human body come into focus for severe judgment: hand, foot, and eye. The three members follow the same pattern: “And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire” (9:43). The same severe judgment follows with the foot being cut off (9:45), and with the tearing out of the eye (9:47).

Jesus’ concern for “little ones” or “powerless ones” is ultimate. The gathered sayings are concluded with yet another ominous word identifying what continues for the unrighteous in eternal punishment, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (9:48).

There is a word of hope over and against a word of judgment in these sayings of Jesus, and is present in the words the evangelist calls forth from the prophet Isaiah. This saying in Mark is the final word from the last verses of the prophet Isaiah, words of judgment set within the context of promise and hope:

“For as the new heaven and the new earth which I will make, shall remain
before me, says the LORD; so shall your descendants and your name remain.
        From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall
come to worship before me, says the LORD.

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have
rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be
, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:22-24).

The concluding verses of Isaiah’s prophecy and vision express God’s promise and call God’s people to worship and praise. Juxtaposed to this vision and promise is the reality of the power of evil and separation of the unrighteous from God’s eternal glory.

In light of these words of promise and judgment, the evangelist calls upon Jesus’ teaching to be the salt of the world. If we, as the people of God and followers of Jesus, lose our purpose to honor and worship the Lord and serve one another, we are like salt that has lost its intended purpose and is only good to be destroyed: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (9:50a).

The closing admonition of our text is the claim and promise of God and Jesus’ call to live as God’s intended purpose in creating us for life: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (9:50b). This is the call, identity, and promise of discipleship which is the peace that Jesus offers to all his followers. We are called by Jesus into a cosmic engagement against the powers of evil and injustice and to serve our neighbor in love.

First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Frank M. Yamada

The book of Numbers can be a theological quagmire.

Today’s passage has three interwoven themes that are prominent within the book–the people’s complaints, Moses’ prophetic authority, and the LORD’s judgment. Interpreters tend to over-simplify the relationship between these three critical elements. The LORD is often characterized as just for judging the murmuring masses, while the Israelites are condemned for being an ungrateful and rebellious people.

The complexity in this passage, however, requires more interpretative subtlety. The wilderness, which becomes a metaphorical place of God’s testing in the Bible, is the locus for both human and divine difficulty. This harsh setting challenges both the Israelites and their God. Positioned in the middle of the conflict is Moses, who intercedes on behalf of the people in the face of God’s judgment. Thus, the wilderness becomes the place in which covenantal loyalty is lived out and tested for all parties involved–the Israelites, Moses, and the LORD.

Numbers 11 contains two judgment stories (verses 1–3 and verses 4–35), both of which end with an etiological explanation for two place names. Verses 1–3 recount the events at Taberah, which in a folk etymology translates roughly to “a place of burning.” The narrator associates this name with the LORD’s judgment of the people through a burning fire.

The lectionary’s selection from this chapter focuses on the second of these two narratives in 11:4–35. The place name in this last narrative is Kibroth-hattaavah or “graves of craving.” In the story, the people desire meat rather than the divinely provided manna. Because of their discontent, the LORD causes a plague to fall upon the Israelites, killing many. The disease is presumably connected to the quail meat that is still between the people’s teeth when death strikes the camp (verse 33).

These two stories share a similar structure. The Israelites’ initial complaint evokes anger from the LORD, who subsequently judges the people through the means of some natural element–fire then quail. In both stories, the people’s situation stirs Moses to call upon the LORD. The two tales differ, however, in a couple of key elements. In the first story, Moses prays on behalf of the people, causing the fire to cease (verse 2). In the second, the people’s murmurings lead not to intercession but to Moses’ personal complaint to the LORD that the burdens of the people are too heavy for him to bear (verses 11–15). The LORD responds favorably to Moses’ request by putting the spirit of prophecy on seventy elders.

By contrast, the LORD sends a plague upon the people in response to their craving for meat. Moreover, in this second story, the great prophet of Israel does not intervene between God’s wrath and the people. Chapter 11 concludes with a description of the devastating effects of the plague upon the Israelites. These two narratives, along with other stories in the book of Numbers that depict the LORD’s judgment, have the overall effect of explaining how a generation of Israel passes away in the wilderness prior to their entrance into Canaan (Numbers 32:13).

The three interrelated themes in this passage–the Israelites’ complaints, Moses’ prophetic authority, and the LORD’s judgment–provide the preacher and congregation with rich resources for theological reflection.

The Israelite’s Complaints
This theme is difficult to reconcile with other wilderness traditions within the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus 16, for example, the people complain about their hunger in a strikingly similar way. The people long for the days when they were in Egypt eating rich foods. In the Exodus story, however, God hears the cries of the people and provides meat and manna for them. The Israelites’ pleas for food evoke divine pity prior to the establishing of the covenant on Mount Sinai.

In Numbers 11, the same complaint evokes the LORD’s wrath. There is no simple formula for determining why the people’s complaining leads to God’s provision in one case and severe judgment in another. There is a point, however, when complaint moves into the realm of ingratitude, when faithful lament becomes rebellious murmuring. In the book of Numbers, the Israelites have crossed the fine line between God’s compassion and anger, between justly advocating for their needs and being dissatisfied with God’s miraculous provision.

Moses’ Prophetic Authority
In the book of Numbers, Moses is characterized as the Israelite prophet par excellence. Individuals who challenge Mosaic authority suffer harsh consequences (cf. Numbers 12). However, even within this type of centralized authority–the most iconic in the Hebrew Bible–there is a series of checks and balances for human leadership. This passage contains an example in which Moses, the great liberator of the Israelites, cannot bear the peoples’ burdens by himself. Moreover, when Joshua tries to limit the spirit of prophecy that has fallen on Eldad and Medad, Moses rebukes him, responding with a statement that de-centralizes authority: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).

The LORD’s Judgment
Certain traditions within the Hebrew Bible make a direct correlation between human failing and God’s judgment. It is tempting to do the same with this story in Numbers 11. However, as the first story in verses 1–3 suggests, there are times when the intercession of a faithful prophet can stay the hand of God’s anger. The prayer of the righteous avails much. Moses, like Jeremiah, bears the people’s burdens and stands in the gap between human rebellion and divine judgment.

Within the biblical traditions, the LORD remains sovereign and free. There is no certain way to secure the end of the story. Within the drama of covenantal loyalty, however, the righteous are called to stand faithfully with God’s people in the wilderness, even in the face of the LORD’s anger. Such a calling need not be reserved for a select few. Indeed our desire should be that all of God’s people become prophets, filled with a spirit that would enable them to intercede passionately for the well-being of all humanity.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Brent A. Strawn

Esther is a strange and difficult book for several reasons, first and foremost because it is apparently non-theological.

God never appears in the Hebrew version of the book, which is the form translated in most modern English versions. The Greek version of Esther, familiar from Catholic Bibles or from ecumenical versions which contain the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical “Additions to Esther,” is a very different matter. In that version, God is frequently mentioned, and the main characters, especially Esther, are shown to be pious Jews who are never far from prayer (see especially Addition C: Add Esther 13:8-14:9). But all that “Greek goodness” is absent from the austere Hebrew version, which never once mentions God or prayer, nor really anything whatsoever of Jewish religion and piety.

The closest one gets to a mention of God in Esther may be Mordechai’s comment:
“For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)

But whether this other “quarter” (or “place”; Hebrew: māqom) from which deliverance will come is really an allusion to God can be doubted. Even if it is such an allusion, one must admit that it is a muted one, hardly transparent.

Not only is Esther apparently non-theological, it is also disconcerting on several levels, especially concerning matters of violence. Violence in the Bible causes many contemporary readers discomfort, especially in opulent First World settings where oppression is more often something one perpetrates on someone else–perhaps via one’s stock portfolio–than something that is regularly experienced. (Non-First World settings often see the retributive justice of Scripture in a different light.) If such discomfort is caused by patently theological texts like Joshua or Revelation, how much more is the issue a problem in a non-theological text like Esther!

Small wonder, then, that the lectionary exercises more than a good bit of editorial license in constructing a pastiche from two different chapters of Esther. The good preacher will worry, that is, not just about the non-theological nature of Esther, or its disconcerting aspects (especially violence), but also about the lectionary’s theological-liturgical censorship, especially since this is the only text from Esther that appears in the entire Revised Common Lectionary!

In considering the lection’s “constructed” nature, good preachers will worry about what’s been left out. In a word, a lot. The omission of 7:7-8 is rather minor; the big cut is found in the omission of all the material from 8:1 through 9:19. Particularly important (and difficult) in this section is the authorization of the Jews “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods” (8:12) so that the Jews could “be ready on that day to take revenge on their enemies” (8:13). Despite the discomfort such verses might cause us, 8:16 states that “For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor” because of this edict. It is probably no surprise, then, that many people “professed to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had fallen on them” (8:17b; cf. 9:2-3).

The edict is carried out in Susa on two successive days: the first finds five hundred people killed but no plunder taken (9:5-10); the second sees three hundred more killed but again without taking plunder (9:11-15). In the provinces, the Jews’ “relief from their enemies” has a higher body count: seventy five thousand, but again no plunder is taken (9:16). In both Susa and the provinces, these victories are followed by days of resting, with feasting and gladness among the Jews (9:17-19).

This rather violent story is, in fact, the background to the feast of Purim, which the last part of the Sunday lection covers (9:20-22; further verses 23-31). This rather violent story is, in fact, what the lectionary “selects out.”

Given this “back story,” one can sympathize with the lectionary’s editors! A few key things must not be missed, however:

  • Despite the king’s authorization that the Jews could plunder their enemies (8:11), it is repeated three times that they did not (9:10, 15, 16). This detail reminds one of holy war situations in Deuteronomy and Joshua where there, too, plunder is not to be taken. In holy war theology, this practice:
    1) signals that the military action is not a matter of financial gain,
    2) is a way of dedicating the “spoils of war” to God,
    3) highlights Israel’s need to have God fight on their behalf. If the “no-plundering” detail is intended to evoke holy war theology, it, too, is at best allusive, but it gains further support by the considerations that follow.
  • The violence of the Jews is presented as both defensive and justifiedenemy people who hate them are seeking to attack them, and so they must be able to “defend their lives” (8:11; cf. 9:1-2, 5, 10, 16, 22).
  • This defensive action is a precise reversal of Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews (see 9:1; cf. 8:11-12 with 3:13). If this “payback” sounds (re)vengeful (cf. 8:13), it is — it reflects the kind of perfectly balanced retribution that marks biblical notions of divine vengeance: eye for eye, tooth for tooth. In the ancient world, such a yardstick was not merciless but merciful, making sure the punishment fit the crime exactly, no more, no less.
  • After the days of violence come the days of rest, feasting, and gladness. These terms evoke key texts and practices from the Torah: Sabbath, for instance, or the worship and sacrificial celebrations in Deuteronomy (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:7, 12, 18-19; 14:26-27; 15:20; 16:11, 14; 26:11). Here too the evocations are allusive, if not elusive, but they receive additional support from the notations in Esther that these days were marked by giving gifts to one another and to the poor, a detail otherwise unexplainable (cf., e.g., Deuteronomy 14:27-29).

Taken together, these considerations indicate that, again, violence in the Bible — or here in Esther — isn’t all that it may seem to be on first blush, and so we should be careful how we treat it, especially if we ourselves have not faced enemies who hate us and who are set on our destruction. By cutting and pasting snippets together, the lectionary effectively eliminates the violence problem altogether, but preachers should be careful to not do the same. False impressions about Esther can be created by such “snippetology.” False impressions about violence in the Old Testament (and the New Testament!) can also be created without careful and thoughtful treatments.

This is not to say that the problem of violence in Scripture should be baptized, especially baptized quickly. But the comments above suggest that the issue is more complex and subtle than might at first appear. The same could be said of Esther as a whole: more subtle — even more subtle theologically— than might appear. Perhaps more insight on its theological subtleties and further clues regarding the interpretation of its violence might be gathered from the other lessons for the day: Psalm 124, which praises the LORD who was on Israel’s side and kept them from certain destruction; Mark 9:38-50, which redefines who is for us and who against us, and which warns us about sin and its consequences; and James 5:13-20, which reminds us of the power of faithful prayer and the confession of sin.


Commentary on Psalm 19:7-14

Fred Gaiser

The lectionary tries to steal this psalm from us, but we don’t need to let it.

We lose verses 1-6 in the prescribed reading, which makes Psalm 19 an altogether different psalm. To be sure, Psalm 19 shows up in its entirety more than once in the Revised Common Lectionary (once earlier this year, on Lent 3, March 15, 2009), so maybe we could allow it to be truncated here. However, if we do, we get quite another psalm. With merely verses 7-14, we have another Torah psalm, a psalm in praise of God’s law in the manner of Psalms 1 and 119–not a bad thing, but not Psalm 19. Psalm 19’s message, its glory, its surprise is the combination of creation psalm and Torah psalm, both God’s creation and God’s law seen as worthy of our praise and the source of God’s revelation.

By severing verses 1-6 from 7-14, the lectionary follows the pattern of critical exegetes of some generations ago who thought this was two psalms, now inexplicably put together. But it is put together, of course–deliberately, no doubt–and we should read it that way. Besides, as McCann notes, the psalm has not just two parts but three: the focus on creation (verses 1-6), on Torah (verses 7-10), and on the psalmist and his or her response to God (verses 11-14).1 All come together to provide the psalm’s message to us.

A key thing that we want to hear in this psalm, that preachers want others to hear, is the rich way in which creation and law, nature and word, complement each other, together bearing fuller witness to God than either alone. It has been easy for people to drive a wedge between the two forms of divine revelation that the psalm brings together. On the one hand, some who claim to find God in creation have been quite suspicious of words and precepts (right brain versus left brain?); on the other, some wed to verbal truth have rejected the possibility of knowing God in nature.

In the first category, for example, we can hear Emily Dickinson’s poem “Some keep the Sabbath going to church, / I keep it staying at home, / With a bobolink for a chorister, / And an orchard for a dome.” For Dickinson, “God preaches,–a noted clergyman,– / And the sermon is never long; / So instead of getting to heaven at last, / I ‘m going all along!”2

In the second category, we could mention Karl Barth’s sharp “No” to natural theology, rejecting any possibility of “a union of humanity with God existing outside of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.”3

Emily Dickinson may have something in common with Psalm 19 when she hears God preaching in nature, but must she thereby reject church and Sabbath? And Karl Barth is right, of course, that we can’t get to Jesus Christ by listening to the birds, but must God’s revelation be thereby limited to Christology? The psalm’s genius is bringing together what many theologians and poets have been unable to connect.

In part one, the psalm recognizes that in creation there is “no speech'” yet, mysteriously creation’s “voice goes out through all the earth.” Here the psalmist hears the praise of creation as does the author of Psalm 148. Jesus’ words may be appropriate for all of us here: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9).

The psalm makes clear that although the sun proclaims God, the sun itself is not divine (as much nature religion, then and now, might want to assert). Though the poem uses ancient mythic language that glories in the sun (and that might once have been an ancient Near Eastern hymn to the sun god), God is now seen to set a tent for the sun as it makes its way across the sky. The sun shines, but God is its originator. We, too, revel in the sun and its light and heat, as we revel in all the wonders of creation, but behind the creature, we worship the Creator. In the beauty and mystery of creation, we see something of God.

Tying the psalm together, the “speech” of verses 2-3 uses the same Hebrew root (‘omer) as the “words” of verse 14. The three parts of the poem have one theme: the “voices” that reveal God, in creation, in Torah, and in the response of God’s servant.

In part two, we hear the psalmist’s extravagant praise of God’s law. God’s law is perfect, God’s decrees are sure, God’s precepts are right, God’s commandments are clear, God’s ordinances are true. This is hardly the voice of a person subjected to the “blue laws” that seem to prohibit good times to the supposed glory of God. The psalmist knows what Deuteronomy knows (Deuteronomy 30:19-20; see Proverbs 6:23), and what the decriers of law do not: the law is made for life.

God’s law is the gift of a loving parent to protect children from playing in traffic: Don’t do that–not because you dare not have fun, but because I will not have you die. The laws and ordinances that protect from harm and that provide the order that allows human life to thrive are praised in Psalm 19. These laws are more to be desired than gold and sweeter than honey (verses 10); they are words that proclaim God’s love for humankind and reveal God’s never failing care.

Hearing the voice of God in creation, hearing the voice of God’s law that gives us life, we can join the voice of the psalmist in the psalm’s final section, appreciating the law’s warning and its intention of keeping us from falling into transgression, praying at last that our words, our voice, be acceptable to God. Like the psalmist’s, our prayer will include confession, of course, for without God’s cleansing we cannot finally be blameless and innocent (verse 13). Then, in response to that prayer, we hear another word of God, God’s gracious word of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. With that, we rejoice in God’s Son, even as we rejoice, with the psalmist, in God’s sun, and give thanks to God, our rock and redeemer.

1J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996) 751.
2The full poem is found often online; for example, at www.poetry-chaikhana.com/D/DickinsonEmi/324SomekeepS.htm (accessed 9 May 2009).
3Church Dogmatics II/1, 168; see also Barth, “No! Answer to Emil Brunner,” in Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, ed. Clifford Green (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989) 151-167.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 5:13-20

A.K.M. Adam

The preceding chapters in the Epistle of James have described the ideal of a congregation that lives cooperatively, harmoniously, in concord with heaven’s peaceable grace — and that repudiates wrangling, privilege, and domination.

James addresses communities more than individuals (“to the twelve tribes in the Diaspora,” 1:1), and he promotes an ethic of integrity that emphasizes building one another up. He ends the epistle with the verses from today’s lesson, an apparently somewhat miscellaneous array of exhortations.

These verses describe some of the goings-on one might expect to observe in the sort of community James has in mind. Although James uses the form of imperative verbs, the context of the whole letter warrants our reading these verses not just as an array of commands; we do well to read these also as a description of what the ideal congregation behaves like. A harmonious, mutually-concerned congregation will evince the sort of relationships James endorses here.

A congregation under the influence of James would be committed to sharing each other’s burdens and joys. In previous chapters, James envisions a community where class and poverty do not divide disciples; here, he applies the same logic to grief and illness and sin. If one member is sick, the whole congregation is weaker. Anyone who is afflicted should feel confident to ask for help from their neighbors, and the congregation’s leaders will pray on their behalf and treat them with oil (used for medicinal properties among pagan healers as well as among Jews and Christians) in the name of the Lord.

Although James does not emphasize the point here, oil was not necessarily readily available to the poorest Christians; if the elders are to anoint any member of the congregation with oil, the better-off members of the community will have to be subsidizing the poorer. James thus advocates a model of community that admits no distinctions between rich and poor, with regard to health as well as to wealth.

James also reintroduces the topic of truthfulness as an aspect of community life. Whereas in preceding passages he has focused on the destructive consequences of intemperate speech, here he emphasizes the positive necessity of telling the truth. In 5:12, he insists that disciples tell the truth at all times, to the extent that they need never take oaths (since everything they say is true).

These verses — presumably omitted from the lectionary reading to avoid controversy about oath-taking in civil life — prepare for the even more delicate topic of 5:15b and 16, where James explains that the community should sustain a high enough degree of mutual trust to confess their sins to one another. James does not, I think, consider this a punishment or a means of cult-like social control; rather, it constitutes an ingredient of the kind of common life he proposes for all Christians. Secret sins corrode our souls, but they also corrode our relationships with others. The more fully we can trust others with even our painful failings, the more readily we can share with them in the forgiveness that releases us from the power our sins hold over us.

In the cases of both physical infirmity (manifest in sicknesses) and spiritual infirmity (manifest in sins), James believes that our faithful solidarity and sharing are effectual in remedying our weakness. This is surely true in plain, common-sense ways; we care for one another by paying attention to symptoms of illness, by providing the resources for health, by guarding against irresistible temptations, by living up to others’ high expectations of us. But James also trusts that forces greater than common sense will support and amplify our well-being. Thus, in verse 19, James encourages his audience to strive to bring back a neighbor who “wanders from the truth,” which restoration will have positive effects not only for the reformed sinner but also, apparently, for those who restore the sinner to “the truth” (5:20). Confession brings with it the assurance of God’s forgiveness; prayerful anointing (“the prayer of faith,” 5:15; “the prayer of the righteous,” 5:16) will, in James’s ideal congregation, powerfully and effectually remedy both spiritual and physical ailments.

The benefits of our caring for one another are not always (we may even say not usually) immediately obvious. James therefore reminds the congregation that faithfulness requires patience (5:7-11). At the same time, James considers Elijah the example of someone who, although human in every way, wrought extraordinary effects by his righteousness and his confident prayer. By citing both the importance of patience and the actual example of Elijah, James frames his exhortation so as to underscore both the possibility of miraculous fulfillment of our prayers, and the inevitable unlikelihood that we will witness such a dramatic response.

Although the Letter of James breaks off somewhat abruptly at this point, these verses reinforce the practical working-out of the general principles that James has been expounding earlier in the letter. Through the letter as a whole, James urges his readers not simply to assent to metaphysical claims about Jesus and God, but to receive the gospel of transforming grace, and in receiving that gospel to permit their lives to be transformed into the image of that grace. Thus James echoes Jesus’ own call to perfect obedience, to consistent truthfulness, to whole-hearted faithfulness, and to community without favoritism.

Most congregations have not been as comprehensively transformed as James would wish for them — but rather than writing off this letter as unrealistic or impractical, we would do well to begin experimenting with the kinds of community practices James proposes. As James would say, such experiments make an occasion for faith to show its effects in our works, and for our works to bring faith to completion.